Supporting your vocal with proper breathing

Breathing & Support Part 2

This, then leads us to the topic of “Support” – which is where “Schools of Thought” #2 and #3 come in. Breathing and Breath Support are sometimes used interchangeably and, though they are inextricably linked, they are also separate ideas in their own way. Support is the word often used when a singer uses the muscles in their middle (referred to as the “diaphragm”) to push against the lungs, causing more air to be pushed towards the vocal cords. This generally causes the sound to be louder, simply because the definition of volume when it comes to singing is, “the ability of the vocal cords to withstand more air pressure”. The more air pressure your vocal cords can resist, the louder your sound will be. The fact that the “diaphragm” is obsessed about so much in singing circles is beyond me, to be honest. It is an involuntary muscle that contracts and allows a vacuum to be created in the lungs which causes you to inhale, then during exhalation it relaxes causing the elasticity of the lungs to force the air out. You cannot control this muscle. You can, however, use the muscles in your abdomen (like the intercostals, for example) to contract, making the space for the air in the lungs a little crowded, whereby forcibly pushing air towards the vocal folds, causing them to provide more resistance (and create a louder sound).

Wow. Complicated. And you don’t really need to know any of that. Now you can promptly forget you even read the previous paragraph. What a relief. Now try this:

Stand up straight, place your hands on your belly and say “HEY!” – like you’re trying to get someone’s attention. What happened in your middle? Your belly sucked in, pushed against the lungs causing air to be pushed towards the vocal folds, in turn causing them to have to resist the extra air while you vocalized….blah, blah, blah. What some vocal students spend months and even years of their lives sweating to learn to control in countless vocal lessons you just did right there. And you didn’t even have to know the word “diaphragm”. Good for you!

Of course, now I’m leading to another episode of “Having Said That”. So…having said that, at a certain point the ability to “support” (otherwise here-to-fore understood to be defined as: adding air pressure that the vocal cords will then resist) is an important step in your vocal education. When your voice is in balance – and this is important so let me repeat it: When your voice is in BALANCE (that means no strain or breathy sounds, no flips or breaks at your vocal bridges, no rising of the larynx/adam’s apple as the pitch ascends), THEN you can learn to support the sound. Just like a weight lifter has to learn proper form before he or she can add more weight and with bad form would cause muscle strain and injury limiting their ability to continue lifting. Once their form is correct they can gradually increase the amount of weight as their muscles build up strength. The same principle applies to the vocal folds: once proper “form” is achieved we then want to work on gradually adding more weight/resistance to the cords so they can achieve louder, more “supported” sounds.

This, in my experience, is effective using either method #2 or #3 above. They both achieve the same result: contracting the intercostal muscles to add more air pressure to the vocal cords, in turn causing them to resist the air. And I’ve met several singers, whose voices are beautifully balanced (and who I am a fan of), who swear by either one or the other and say they couldn’t reach the volumes they achieve and get their incredible vocal quality in their mix without it. And I believe them.

Supporting your vocal with proper breathing

Breathing & Support Part 1

Wow!  This can be a hot-button topic for many vocal instructors!  I’m sure I’m opening a can of worms even posting this.  Often one of the first things a new student tells me is that they need help with their breathing.  This is usually the one thing the average Joe knows about singing – you need to learn to breathe like a singer.

Let me first fill you in on a few of the different  “Schools of Thought” when it comes to singers, breathing and support:

School of Thought #1: It’s all about breathing!  These instructors work intensely on getting singing students to breathe “low”.  They lie them on the ground on their backs and have them raise books with their stomachs moving up and down with their breath.  They spend hours and hours of lesson time working on trying to control their “diaphragm” before they even get to singing a song.

School of Thought #2: Learn to push your mid-section OUT while singing.  These instructors re-teach your body to have your stomach expand even while exhaling or vocalizing.  They may even have you learn to push back on the piano itself with your middle to build this strength.

School of Thought #3: Pull your mid-section IN while singing.  Once you’ve learned to breathe “Low breaths” (see #1) you then learn to pull your middle in while breathing out and/or vocalizing.

School of Thought #4: Breathing isn’t as important as it’s made out to be.  These instructors teach that the majority of vocal problems occur in the vocal cords themselves and the muscles surrounding them.  Solve these issues and correct breathing will come naturally.

OK.  How confusing is that??  Let me say at the outset that, although I personally gravitate towards the 4th approach, my teaching does tend to reflect bits of all 4 approaches.

Let’s start with #4: Breathing isn’t as important as some teachers make it out to be. When a new student tells me they need help learning to breathe I generally nod my head understandingly and then take them through some diagnostic vocalizes designed to show me their vocal “tendencies” or where their voice is unbalanced. If a person’s voice is out of balance, it won’t matter how much you focus on breathing, you will be beating a dead horse. A singer who is breathy and quiet will have trouble holding a pitch for a long time because they will be losing too much air where the vocal cords should be resisting it. A singer who belts their notes out full of strain and tension will have trouble holding notes because it will be uncomfortable. Any tension in the vocal apparatus itself (ie: your “Adam’s apple”) and surrounding muscles will limit a singer’s ability to hold a note for an extended time and will affect the way they are breathing.

Likewise, focusing so intensely on breathing when a singer has balance issues will cause a whole new set of problems: Pushing more air at vocal cords that are in a breathy/heady type of coordination will cause all sorts of outer muscles to become involved, as they attempt to keep the pitch going when there are gaps in the way the vocal folds are coming together. Like trying to race a sailboat when there are holes in the sails – it takes a whole lot more effort to get the same speed as the boats with whole sails. And when a singer has strain/tension issues, adding more air pressure to already overly-weighted vocal folds will lead to damage and more strain. Same race, now your boat is filled with rocks – better add some paddlers (muscle tension) to help it along again!

Having said that, if I see a singer come into my studio who is obviously breathing shallowly (shoulder raising, hyperventillating-type breathing causing a person to be light-headed – I can often hear it in their intake of breath before I even look at their body movement), you better believe that, while making sure their voice is in balance, we will also be working on breathing lower breaths and relaxing the shoulders – and correcting bad posture that often leads to this. But all of this may only take 5 minutes of our time. If this seems to be a problem for you try this: stand up straight, with shoulders back, chest out, bottom in and spine aligned all the way up through your neck. Place your hands on your middle and take a deep breath. Feel your middle filling out? Watch yourself in a mirror if you’re not sure. If that doesn’t work then maybe you need the lie-on-the-floor-with-a-book-on-your-belly approach.

Read on for “Breathing & Support Part 2″….